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Ben Simmons mental-readiness, Niangsanity, Isaiah Joe time?

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are an impressive 5-2 through seven contests. On their list of achievements so far includes getting a bit of revenge against the Atlanta Hawks, the team that knocked them out of the second round a season ago. The Sixers won that one handily, 122-94. Recently, they have also deployed a bench unit which has been as fun as they have been impressive. The team then made a statement against the Portland Trailblazers, beating a potential superstar trade target in Damian Lillard without the services of their top two (available) players in Joel Embiid (rest) and Tobias Harris (health and safety protocols). If you’re keeping score at home, they also survived their second slippery court incident at Wells Fargo in the last handful of seasons.

With a showdown looming against an upstart Bulls group tied for first place seven games into the season, let’s look at three intriguing storylines.

1) Ben Simmons latest

No need to make you wait for the biggest topic, let’s get right after it.

According to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Ben Simmons’ refusal to accept the 76ers’ assistance to address his mental readiness to play is frustrating the organization.

Simmons has been receiving treatment from team doctors for a back ailment. But he has been unwilling to meet with Sixers doctors to discuss his mental readiness, according to ESPN. The disgruntled point guard has been working instead with mental health professionals through the National Basketball Players Association since this summer. He has not shared details of those meetings with the Sixers, according to the report.”

The ESPN spot, penned by insiders Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, referenced by Pompey is here.

In my estimation the Sixers are behaving reasonably here. They have taken both the back issue (which has improved enough recently that Simmons has ramped up to working with team skills-and-development coaches) and the mental health issue very seriously.

It’s apparent that the frustration from the Sixers’ leadership stems not from Simmons seeking care outside the organization but more a lack of updates and lack of communication.

Kyle Neubeck of The PhillyVoice, sums it up:

“The Sixers were and are prepared to give Simmons time to sort out what he needs to, but would like to know (and have contractual grounds to demand) what sort of people he’s speaking to, any treatment options he has or has not been recommended, and broader details of that nature that could be used to develop a firm return-to-play plan for Simmons.”

The fact that Simmons may not want to share these potential indicators of progress isn’t a great sign for his immediate return-to-play. The team clearly values Simmons’ ability more than most NBA teams, based on the fact we haven’t seen a trade yet. The question remains of whether or not he’ll suit up for the Sixers when he’s mentally ready to hoop.

[Update: it has been reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic that Sixers’ President Daryl Morey approached Ben Simmons Wednesday “about his return to game action, but Simmons restated that he is not yet mentally ready to play and is continuing to seek professional help.”]

The team does not appear to be looking for specifics regarding what has been discussed in meetings with practitioners; it sounds like the source of frustration on the team’s end has revolved around being kept in the dark, generally. Our biggest takeaway as of now is that Simmons’ return does not appear imminent.

2) Niangsanity

Georges Niang has been a major bright spot for the Sixers. Minivan is the stretch big who was promised. The emergence of Niang has provided a massive boost to Doc Rivers’ rotation. He’s helping them keep things afloat now. If and when Simmons ever returns to the lineup, Niang would represent the perfect fit for lineups when Embiid rests. He might even be good enough to help convince Embiid to rest more when The Process is dealing with minor-nag injuries.

If Joel had the confidence his team could stack a few wins during nights he was out, he might play things more conservatively during the regular season grind like Kevin Durant did last season, ensuring he was in peak form come the playoffs.

Simmons only logged 202 minutes a season ago without a traditional big. Coach Rivers could one day, theoretically, pair Simmons and Niang in some of the five-out lineups Daryl Morey talked about last season. Rivers didn’t use those much in 2021, preferring to pair Simmons and Dwight Howard, or run with a Tobias Harris and bench unit group when Joel sat. Neither of those options were viable playoff solutions. Perhaps this was because Rivers simply didn’t trust former reserve four, Mike Scott. The team now apparently possesses a major upgrade in that former Threegional Manager role.

3) Isaiah Joe time?

One of the biggest under-the-radar storylines from last season was Danny Green’s calf strain. So much discussion of the team’s loss to Atlanta revolves around Simmons. When it doesn’t, people tend to focus on things like Embiid’s health (playing on a slightly torn meniscus), Rivers’ schemes, or Seth Curry’s defense.

It wouldn’t be unfair at all to say that the team would have won the Atlanta series despite everything else that went wrong had Green simply never gotten hurt. Imagine how much of the Simmons situation could have been avoided if they at least made the final four last June?

Recently the Long Island native popped up on the injury report with hamstring tightness. Given his age, and the nature of those tricky injuries, a cautious approach is best for Green. The three-time champ may miss some games. We can expect a trio of Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton to receive a minutes boost.

But this is also the perfect time to give Isaiah Joe a fair chance. Joe is only 6-foot-4, but his plus 6-7.5 wingspan teases at the ability to switch a bit on the perimeter; a trait the team mostly lacks. Joe’s jump shot is so smooth, it’s not impossible he could provide the closest facsimile to Green’s 3-and-D skill-set while he recovers.

Joe may not (yet) offer much in terms of playmaking or ball-handling, although he did show improvements there in preseason. But to be fair, neither does Green. Joe’s upside as a knock-down shooter and potential as a wing-stopper, however, makes him an intriguing play while Harris and Green (and Simmons) are out.

And of course, as always, we’ve got you covered for game coverage.